Medical Students Help Dispel Kids' Fears With Teddy Bear Clinics

Nat Harper

February 11, 2022

In December 2021, 26 medical students at Florida State University (FSU) waltzed into the FSU Child Care and Early Learning Center loaded with armfuls of plushy, cute teddy bears. For the first time in several years, the Pediatric Interest Group opened the doors to their teddy bear clinic ― an annual event that gives students an opportunity to practice their leadership skills while also helping to demystify trips to the doctor for the young participants.

At the clinic, children aged 2–4 emulate basic medical practices on their fuzzy patients under the guidance of the students.

From furthest to closest: Madikay Faal, a first-year medical student, Sarah Ripps, a second-year medical student, and Anna Flickinger, a first-year medical student, help demonstrate a basic exam on the teddy bears.

Teddy bear clinics were started by FSU's College of Medicine Family Medicine Interest Group in 2018, but it slowed to a halt until second-year medical student Taylor Posey approached the Pediatric Interest Group during her tenure as the groups president about reinstating a similar program. At FSU, interest groups allow students who are not quite sure which field of medicine they'd like to pursue to gain experience in any they have interest in.

"Pediatrics is the reason I wanted to go to medical school," Posey told Medscape Medical News. "So it was great that working on this project really solidified the thought that I did the right thing. It's great to watch the volunteers and children interact together."

The clinic divides the children into three groups: 2-year-old toddlers, 3-year-old "tweens," and 4-year-old pre-K children.

First-year medical student Sally Stauder shows a Pre-K child how to use a stethescope.

The toddlers paint white handprints on black construction paper to "create" x-rays and learn about them. The tweens are given medical equipment such as paper stethoscopes, thermometers, Band Aids, cotton balls, and Q-Tips to put into their very own doctor bags, which are really just folders with the emblematic red plus sign sticker attached to the front. The Pre-K kids are tasked with giving their teddy bears medical exams under the watchful eye of the medical students. Together, they examine the teddy bear's eyes, heart, and lungs.

"There's growing research out there that says medical play ― which can be defined as children playing as if they were the parents of the teddy bear, learning about a diagnosis and treating it ― decreases the anxiety in children when they go to visit a doctor. Having real medical equipment that the children can manipulate as opposed to plastic toys really makes a big difference," Posey said.

Khari King, a second-year medical student, explains an eye chart to a group of Pre-K kids.

One of Posey's peers worked with him to create developmentally appropriate activities for the children. Posey said that some of the ideas for the clinic came from Pinterest boards.

"The planning of it worked really well. I was expecting things to fall through, but they didn't," Posey said. "It can be tough working with young children and trying to do activities with them so that you're not doing too much but also not having too low of expectations."

"It was really a massive success on all fronts," said Mary P. Norton, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics and faculty Pediatric Interest Group advisor for the clinic. "The ability to be in the community and get hands-on experience has been really cut down by the pandemic, and this allowed for our students to be able to go out in person and apply what they learned in the classroom with the age group they want to work with, which is fantastic."

Anna Flickinger shows how to take someone's temperature.

Perhaps the most impactful aspect of the clinic is its ability to help ease children's fears about visits to the doctor. "We want to allow children to have a voice and give them a space to be a part of their treatment plan," Norton said. "We want to say, 'Your voice matters, you're not a passive being,' so that they're a part of that relationship and show them that their experience is important. We hope these clinics aid in forming a partnership between parents, children, and doctors."

Currently, the Pediatric Interest Group is hoping to have an annual teddy bear clinic. In the future, they hope to increase it to one a semester.

"These registered student organizations are 100% student run ― student ideas, student volunteers, connections, and partnerships," Norton said. "This clinic was all Taylor and all of the students. I can't say how proud she is and taking the time out of her busy medical student schedule to organize this for herself, her peers, and for these children."

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